Critical Essays On Margaret Atwood

"O brave new world, that has such people in't!" - Miranda, in Shakespeare's The Tempest, on first sighting the shipwrecked courtiers

In the latter half of the 20th century, two visionary books cast their shadows over our futures. One was George Orwell's 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, with its horrific vision of a brutal, mind-controlling totalitarian state - a book that gave us Big Brother and thoughtcrime and newspeak and the memory hole and the torture palace called the Ministry of Love and the discouraging spectacle of a boot grinding into the human face forever.

The other was Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), which proposed a different and softer form of totalitarianism - one of conformity achieved through engineered, bottle-grown babies and hypnotic persuasion rather than through brutality, of boundless consumption that keeps the wheels of production turning and of officially enforced promiscuity that does away with sexual frustration, of a pre-ordained caste system ranging from a highly intelligent managerial class to a subgroup of dim-witted serfs programmed to love their menial work, and of soma, a drug that confers instant bliss with no side effects.

Which template would win, we wondered. During the cold war, Nineteen Eighty-Four seemed to have the edge. But when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, pundits proclaimed the end of history, shopping reigned triumphant, and there was already lots of quasi-soma percolating through society. True, promiscuity had taken a hit from Aids, but on balance we seemed to be in for a trivial, giggly, drug-enhanced spend-o-rama: Brave New World was winning the race.

That picture changed, too, with the attack on New York's twin towers in 2001. Thoughtcrime and the boot grinding into the human face could not be got rid of so easily, after all. The Ministry of Love is back with us, it appears, though it's no longer limited to the lands behind the former iron curtain: the west has its own versions now.

On the other hand, Brave New World hasn't gone away. Shopping malls stretch as far as the bulldozer can see. On the wilder fringes of the genetic engineering community, there are true believers prattling of the gene-rich and the gene-poor - Huxley's alphas and epsilons - and busily engaging in schemes for genetic enhancement and - to go one better than Brave New World - for immortality.

Would it be possible for both of these futures - the hard and the soft - to exist at the same time, in the same place? And what would that be like?

Surely it's time to look again at Brave New World and to examine its arguments for and against the totally planned society it describes, in which "everybody is happy now". What sort of happiness is on offer, and what is the price we might pay to achieve it?

I first read Brave New World in the early 1950s, when I was 14. It made a deep impression on me, though I didn't fully understand some of what I was reading. It's a tribute to Huxley's writing skills that although I didn't know what knickers were, or camisoles - nor did I know that zippers, when they first appeared, had been denounced from pulpits as lures of the devil because they made clothes so easy to take off - I none the less had a vivid picture of "zippicamiknicks", that female undergarment with a single zipper down the front that could be shucked so easily: "Zip! The rounded pinkness fell apart like a neatly divided apple. A wriggle of the arms, a lifting first of the right foot, then the left: the zippicamiknicks were lying lifeless and as though deflated on the floor."

I myself was living in the era of "elasticised panty girdles" that could not be got out of or indeed into without an epic struggle, so this was heady stuff indeed.

The girl shedding the zippicamiknicks is Lenina Crowne, a blue-eyed beauty both strangely innocent and alluringly voluptuous - or "pneumatic", as her many male admirers call her. Lenina doesn't see why she shouldn't have sex with anyone she likes whenever the occasion offers, as to do so is merely polite behaviour and not to do so is selfish. The man she's trying to seduce by shedding her undergarment is John "the Savage", who's been raised far outside the "civilised" pale on a diet of Shakespeare's chastity/whore speeches, and Zuni cults, and self-flagellation, and who believes in religion and romance, and in suffering to be worthy of one's beloved, and who idolises Lenina until she doffs her zippicamiknicks in such a casual and shameless fashion.

Never were two sets of desiring genitalia so thoroughly at odds. And thereon hangs Huxley's tale.

Brave New World is either a perfect-world utopia or its nasty opposite, a dystopia, depending on your point of view: its inhabitants are beautiful, secure and free from diseases and worries, though in a way we like to think we would find unacceptable. "Utopia" is sometimes said to mean "no place", from the Greek ou-topos; others derive it from eu, as in "eugenics", in which case it would mean "healthy place" or "good place". Sir Thomas More, in his own 16th-century Utopia, may have been punning: utopia is the good place that doesn't exist.

As a literary construct, Brave New World thus has a long list of literary ancestors. Plato's Republic and the Bible's book of Revelations and the myth of Atlantis are the great-great-grandparents of the form; nearer in time are More's Utopia, and the land of the talking-horse, totally rational Houyhnhnms in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, and HG Wells's The Time Machine, in which the brainless, pretty "upper classes" play in the sunshine during the day, and the ugly "lower classes" run the underground machinery and emerge at night to eat the social butterflies.

In the 19th century - when improvements in sewage systems, medicine, communication technologies and transportation were opening new doors - many earnest utopias were thrown up by the prevailing mood of optimism, with William Morris's News from Nowhere and Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward foremost among them.

Insofar as they are critical of society as it presently exists, but nevertheless take a dim view of the prospects of the human race, utopias may verge on satire, as do Swift's and More's and Wells's; but insofar as they endorse the view that humanity is perfectible, or can at least be vastly improved, they will resemble idealising romances, as do Bellamy's and Morris's. The first world war marked the end of the romantic-idealistic utopian dream in literature, just as several real-life utopian plans were about to be launched with disastrous effects. The Communist regime in Russia and the Nazi takeover of Germany both began as utopian visions.

But as had already been discovered in literary utopias, perfectibility breaks on the rock of dissent. What do you do with people who don't endorse your views or fit in with your plans? Nathaniel Hawthorne, a disillusioned graduate of the real-life Brooke Farm utopian scheme, pointed out that the Puritan founders of New England - who intended to build the New Jerusalem - began with a prison and a gibbet. Forced re-education, exile and execution are the usual choices on offer in utopias for any who oppose the powers that be. It's rats in the eyes for you - as in Nineteen Eighty-Four - if you won't love Big Brother. Brave New World has its own gentler punishments: for non-conformists, it's exile to Iceland, where Man's Final End can be discussed among like-minded intellects, without pestering "normal" people - in a sort of university, as it were.

Utopias and dystopias from Plato's Republic on have had to cover the same basic ground that real societies do. All must answer the same questions: where do people live, what do they eat, what do they wear, what do they do about sex and child-rearing? Who has the power, who does the work, how do citizens relate to nature, and how does the economy function? Romantic utopias such as Morris's News from Nowhere and WH Hudson's A Crystal Age present a pre-Raphaelite picture, with the inhabitants going in for flowing robes, natural settings in abodes that sound like English country houses with extra stained glass and lots of arts and crafts. Everything would be fine, we're told, if we could only do away with industrialism and get back in tune with nature, and deal with overpopulation. (Hudson solves this last problem by simply eliminating sex, except for one unhappy couple per country house who are doomed to procreate.)

But when Huxley was writing Brave New World at the beginning of the 1930s, he was, in his own words, an "amused, Pyrrhonic aesthete", a member of that group of bright young upstarts that swirled around the Bloomsbury Group and delighted in attacking anything Victorian or Edwardian. So Brave New World tosses out the flowing robes, the crafts, and the tree-hugging. Its architecture is futuristic - electrically lighted towers and softly glowing pink glass - and everything in its cityscape is relentlessly unnatural and just as relentlessly industrialised. Viscose and acetate and imitation leather are its fabrics of choice; apartment buildings, complete with artificial music and taps that flow with perfume, are its dwellings; transportation is by private helicopter. Babies are no longer born, they're grown in hatcheries, their bottles moving along assembly lines, in various types and batches according to the needs of "the hive", and fed on "external secretion" rather than "milk". The word "mother" - so thoroughly worshipped by the Victorians - has become a shocking obscenity; and indiscriminate sex, which was a shocking obscenity for the Victorians, is now de rigueur.

"He patted me on the behind this afternoon," said Lenina.

"There, you see!" Fanny was triumphant. "That shows what he stands for. The strictest conventionality."

Many of Brave New World's nervous jokes turn on these kinds of inversions - more startling to its first audience, perhaps, than to us, but still wry enough. Victorian thrift turns to the obligation to spend, Victorian till-death-do-us-part monogamy has been replaced with "everyone belongs to everyone else", Victorian religiosity has been channelled into the worship of an invented deity - "Our Ford", named after the American car-czar Henry Ford, god of the assembly line - via communal orgies. Even the "Our Ford" chant of "orgy-porgy" is an inversion of the familiar nursery rhyme, in which kissing the girls makes them cry. Now, it's if you refuse to kiss them - as "the Savage" does - that the tears will flow.

Sex is often centre stage in utopias and dystopias - who can do what, with which set of genital organs, and with whom, being one of humanity's main preoccupations. Because sex and procreation have been separated and women no longer give birth - the very idea is yuck-making to them - sex has become a recreation. Little naked children carry on "erotic play" in the shrubberies, so as to get a hand in early. Some women are sterile - "freemartins" - and perfectly nice girls, though a little whiskery. The others practise "Malthusian drill" - a form of birth control - and take "pregnancy surrogate" hormone treatments if they feel broody, and sport sweet little faux-leather fashionista cartridge belts crammed with contraceptives. If they slip up on their Malthusian drill, there's always the lovely pink-glass Abortion Centre. Huxley wrote before the pill, but its advent brought his imagined sexual free-for-all a few steps closer. (What about gays? Does "everyone belongs to everyone else" really mean everyone? We aren't told.)

Huxley himself still had one foot in the 19th century: he could not have dreamed his upside-down morality unless he himself also found it threatening. At the time he was writing Brave New World he was still in shock from a visit to the United States, where he was particularly frightened by mass consumerism, its group mentality and its vulgarities.

I use the word "dreamed" advisedly, because Brave New World - gulped down whole - achieves an effect not unlike a controlled hallucination. All is surface; there is no depth. As you might expect from an author with impaired eyesight, the visual sense predominates: colours are intense, light and darkness vividly described. Sound is next in importance, especially during group ceremonies and orgies, and the viewing of "feelies" - movies in which you feel the sensations of those onscreen, "The Gorillas' Wedding" and "Sperm Whale's Love-Life" being sample titles. Scents are third - perfume wafts everywhere, and is dabbed here and there; one of the most poignant encounters between John the Savage and the lovely Lenina is the one in which he buries his worshipping face in her divinely scented undergarments while she herself is innocently sleeping, zonked out on a strong dose of soma, partly because she can't stand the awful real-life smells of the "reservation" where the new world has not been implemented.

Many utopias and dystopias emphasise food (delicious or awful; or, in the case of Swift's Houyhnhnms, oats), but in Brave New World the menus are not presented. Lenina and her lay-of-the-month, Henry, eat "an excellent meal", but we aren't told what it is. (Beef would be my guess, in view of the huge barns full of cows that provide the external secretions.) Despite the dollops of sex-on-demand, the bodies in Brave New World are oddly disembodied, which serves to underscore one of Huxley's points: in a world in which everything is available, nothing has any meaning.

Meaning has in fact been eliminated, as far as possible. All books except works of technology have been banned - cf Ray Bradbury's 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451; museum-goers have been slaughtered, cf Henry Ford's "History is bunk". As for God, he is present "as an absence; as though he weren't there at all" - except, of course, for the deeply religious John the Savage, who has been raised on the Zuni "reservation", where archaic life carries on, replete with "meaning" of the most intense kinds. John is the only character in the book who has a real body, but he knows it through pain, not through pleasure. "Nothing costs enough here," he says of the perfumed new world, to where he's been brought as an "experiment".

The "comfort" offered by Mustapha Mond - one of the 10 "controllers" of this world, direct descendants of Plato's guardians - is not enough for John. He wants the old world back - dirt, diseases, free will, fear, anguish, blood, sweat, tears and all. He believes he has a soul, and like many an early 20th-century literary possessor of such a thing - think of the missionary in Somerset Maugham's 1921 story, Miss Thompson, who hangs himself after sinning with a prostitute - he is made to pay the price for this belief.

In a foreword to a new edition of Brave New World published in 1946, after the horrors of the second world war and Hitler's "final solution", Huxley criticises himself for having provided only two choices in his 1932 utopia/dystopia - an "insane life in Utopia" or "the life of a primitive in an Indian village, more human in some respects, but in others hardly less queer and abnormal". (He does, in fact, provide a third sort of life - that of the intellectual community of misfits in Iceland - but poor John the Savage isn't allowed to go there, and he wouldn't have liked it anyway, as there are no public flagellations available.) The Huxley of 1946 comes up with another sort of utopia, one in which "sanity" is possible. By this, he means a kind of "high utilitarianism" dedicated to a "conscious and rational" pursuit of man's "final end", which is a kind of union with the immanent "Tao or Logos, the transcendent Godhead or Brahmin". No wonder Huxley subsequently got heavily into the mescaline and wrote The Doors of Perception, thus inspiring a generation of 1960s dopeheads and pop musicians to seek God in altered brain chemistry. His interest in soma, it appears, didn't spring out of nowhere.

Meanwhile, those of us still pottering along on the earthly plane - and thus still able to read books - are left with Brave New World. How does it stand up, 75 years later? And how close have we come, in real life, to the society of vapid consumers, idle pleasure-seekers, inner-space trippers and programmed conformists that it presents?

The answer to the first question, for me, is that it stands up very well. It's still as vibrant, fresh, and somehow shocking as it was when I first read it.

The answer to the second question rests with you. Look in the mirror: do you see Lenina Crowne looking back at you, or do you see John the Savage? Chances are, you'll see something of both, because we've always wanted things both ways. We wish to be as the careless gods, lying around on Olympus, eternally beautiful, having sex and being entertained by the anguish of others. And at the same time we want to be those anguished others, because we believe, with John, that life has meaning beyond the play of the senses, and that immediate gratification will never be enough.

It was Huxley's genius to present us to ourselves in all our ambiguity. Alone among the animals, we suffer from the future perfect tense. Rover the Dog cannot imagine a future world of dogs in which all fleas will have been eliminated and doghood will finally have achieved its full glorious potential. But thanks to our uniquely structured languages, human beings can imagine such enhanced states for themselves, though they can also question their own grandiose constructions. It's these double-sided imaginative abilities that produce masterpieces of speculation such as Brave New World

To quote The Tempest, source of Huxley's title: "We are such stuff / As dreams are made on." He might well have added: "and nightmares".

· Aldous Huxley's Brave New World will be reissued as a Vintage Classic on December 6 (£7.99)

Atwood is known as the “Octopus” and as a “Medusa” by critics for her wit and her biting sense of humor. She is concerned with the creation and function of art as well as its importance in both the political and social worlds. For Atwood, art is an issue of morality; her writing provides a way to look at the world critically, to witness the world’s shortcomings, and to offer solutions for redemption. Atwood believes that, ultimately, art must function as an agent of truth and that the artist should provide both knowledge and confrontation.

Often, Atwood teaches through negative example in her work. Many of her protagonists do not appear heroic at the start of her novels. Also, her narrators are usually not reliable, and they may even be mentally unstable. They are often fragmented and isolated from others and from their settings; they have mixed feelings about their pasts and about their connections to their homeland, Canada.

Thematically, Atwood explores the contradictions behind Canada as a nation and the identity of those who consider themselves Canadians. She has argued that Canadians have always felt victimized. This victimization is a result of the merciless nature that Canadians encountered when they first settled in the country’s vast wilderness and of the colonialist forces that overpowered their political and cultural trends. Through her work, Atwood hopes to encourage Canadian writers and readers to create a more positive and independent view of themselves. This fresh self-image is rooted in identification with indigenous cultures such as Native American and French-Canadian rather than with British and American cultures.

Atwood’s own contradictory feelings toward her native land are apparent in her work. Her negative feelings toward Canada mingle with nostalgia. Her Canadian heritage is the source of plentiful images and archetypes that are fundamental to her novels. Just as Atwood is constantly exploring her identity through her writing, each of her protagonists is fighting to find a new voice. Moreover, Atwood’s Canada, a symbol of unexploited wilderness and innocence, is feminine in an otherwise masculine world. Atwood’s attention to gender goes beyond her portrayal of Canada, for she is concerned with the power struggle between men and women on many levels.

Although by the early 1970’s, many critics viewed Atwood as one of the most influential feminist writers, Atwood states that she is against the concept of power as a whole in the hands of men or women. Although she does not consider herself a feminist writer, her concern with feminist issues began with her early interest in the nineteenth century British novel. Many such novels were written by women, such as Jane Austen and George Eliot. Similarly, Atwood has chosen to write criticism on numerous contemporary female American and Canadian feminist authors; this is an indication of her interest in the content area.

In Atwood’s fiction, her female characters are often exposed to abundant suffering. Atwood has stated that these characters suffer because they mimic the experiences of women in reality. Also, she exposes women’s deepest fear of being used by those around them, unable to extricate themselves from their situations. Atwood’s work presents the physical survival of women in terms of a sisterhood rather than on an individual level. Her feminist concerns are integral in many of her novels, specifically in The Edible Woman, Surfacing (1972), Life Before Man (1979), Bodily Harm (1981), and The Handmaid’s Tale.

Just as Atwood does not identify herself as a feminist writer, neither does she consider herself a science-fiction writer. A majority of her fiction is set in the present day, with details that allude to North America. For this reason, she has been associated with realism: the way things are currently rather than how they might be. Her most popular novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, was a blatant exception to this trend. The work won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987 for the best science-fiction novel published in the United Kingdom. Additionally, a sprinkling of her short stories and poems, as well as her later novel The Blind Assassin (2000), illustrates a concern with the future and the fantastic. Atwood herself refuses to classify her own writing as science fiction because her work does not contain technological hardware. She deems futuristic gadgetry fundamental to science fiction, so she prefers the term speculative fiction in regard to her own writing.

As a writer of poetry, Atwood states that she has a distinct personality from that of a writer of prose. She views poetry as a lens through which one condenses and reflects. In her poetry, she often blurs the line between the real and the unreal. She accomplishes this to the degree that what the reader would view as reality becomes illusion and the unseen becomes more tangible and true. However, Atwood’s prose and poetry contain common thematic material and stylistic choices. Her novels and short stories are poetic in style, and her poems maintain a strong narrative strain.

Stylistically, Atwood chooses to incorporate irony, symbolism, self-conscious narrators, allegory, and bold imagery into her poetry and fiction in order to explore complex relationships between humans and the natural world, discomforting human characteristics, and power struggles between genders and political groups. Although her voice has been criticized as being overly formal and emotionally detached, she has been compared to writers such as George Orwell.


First published: 1972

Type of work: Novel

A young woman who is made mentally unstable by her oppressive social surroundings finds stability by shedding what those around her have deemed sanity.

Surfacing has been applauded for its characterizations, style, and themes. Thematically, the novel is about victimization and attempts to avoid victimization. The heroine of the novel battles the forces that suppress her, and at the end of the novel she gains confidence and a sense of freedom. In many ways, the novel is evocative of Sylvia Plath’s TheBell Jar (1963).

Surfacing begins with the nameless heroine and her lover Joe traveling away from the city. They are accompanied by a married couple, David and Anna, and they are all visiting her family’s cabin on an island in a Quebec lake. The heroine’s father has disappeared, and the heroine is trying to find some answers as to his whereabouts. The men hope to take some photographs for a book they are creating together. Although the father, a botanist, is not found, they decide to remain at the lake.

The flaws and ugliness in each character surface while they are at the lake. Relationships between David and Anna and between the heroine and Joe begin to unravel. Problems in the marriage of David and Anna become apparent, while Joe becomes discontented with his lover because she seems to be obsessed with her search for clues in the cabin. The heroine believes that her parents have left her these clues in her childhood home.

Toward the end of the novel, the heroine runs from all of her companions; the wild island seems to have taken hold of her. Although this journey may seem like a nervous breakdown, it is a time for her to make peace with her past and her identity. Only after the heroine frees herself from society’s influences and connects with her primitive self is she able to develop her true character and to recapture the many memories that she thought she had lost. She reconnects with her parents and with the spirits of indigenous people. She has saved herself by embracing the voice of nature that demands that she avoid all human constructs. Symbolically, the antagonist forces that destroy nature throughout the novel also represent the United States. The theme of anti-Americanism is present throughout the work; for example, American tourists overrun the previously unspoiled landscape.

Eventually, the heroine of Surfacing learns of her father’s death. She must leave the cabin and the lake, for winter is approaching. When she returns, she will need to resume working and to attempt to better her relationship with Joe. A new woman, she is no longer a passive victim.

“Footnote to the Amnesty Report on Torture”

First published: 1978 (collected in Two-Headed Poems, 1978)

Type of work: Poem

A man who works in a torture chamber tries to avoid thinking about the atrocities that occur in the room.

The first stanza of “Footnote to the Amnesty Report on Torture” introduces the torture chamber. The voice in the poem describes how the chamber defies the human imagination; it does not resemble a dungeon, it is not reminiscent of a pornography magazine, and it is not futuristic. Instead, the chamber is compared to a dirty train station—a place that is all too familiar. The image of the train station includes a man who cleans the station’s floor. This individual is the precursor to the unnamed man introduced in the third stanza who sweeps the floor in the torture chamber.

The man who cleans the torture chamber must deal with the grotesque smells and remove the remnants of the previous night’s activity. He reminds himself that he is grateful for his job and that he is not the torturer. This man remains unnamed and generic; he could be any man in any country.

Other shocking images in the poem include limp bodies of those who refuse to speak thrown onto the consul’s lawn. Bodies of children who have been killed in order to extract information from their parents are also described. Despite these atrocities, the anonymous man performs his job each day and does his best to dissociate himself. He completes his work because he must provide for his children and his wife; however, he is fear-ridden. In the back of his mind he cannot detach himself from this cruel world, and he knows that he and his family could be the government’s next targets. The poem makes a bold statement about the harsh reality behind political systems.

The Handmaid’s Tale

First published: 1985

Type of work: Novel

A young woman is forced to become a potential “breeder” after Fundamentalist Christians impose a dictatorial government on the United States.

The Handmaid’s Tale begins near Boston in the mid-1980’s. A faction of right-wing Christians establishes a dictatorship after killing members of the United States government. The result is Gilead, an ultraconservative country that denies women power. Women are unable to hold jobs, use credit cards, or seek education. Also, massive pollution exists due to nuclear and biological warfare. Radioactive territory, known as...

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